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Posted: April 28, 2011

The coming transparency wars: Part 1

We are already micro-monitoring human actions

Thomas Frey

A recent report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety boasted that red-light cameras were responsible for a significant drop in highway fatalities at the intersections where they were posted.

With this one well-crafted report, a document proving they save lives, the red-light camera industry established a beachhead in American society.
Naturally there was no mention of the lives that have been destroyed, marriages ripped apart or the economic drain on the communities surrounding them because of the onerous fines imposed. Saving lives virtually always trumps the carnage of enforcement.

The issuance of the red-light camera report follows a repeatable pattern in business where a controversial enterprise with substantial cash-flow devises a brilliant strategy for justifying their existence.

Transparency creates its own economies. Whether red-light cameras are a net-positive or a net-negative for society is less important than the fact that we are making a dramatic shift towards micro-monitoring human actions.

With every new technology that expands the realm of human transparency, enterprising people quickly follow with systems designed to capitalize on any human deviation from the newly established norms.

The Coming Age of Micro-Transparency

With improved sensor technology, it's easy to envision parking spaces that come with their own enforcement. Once parked, you have 45 seconds to pay for the space. If you park outside of the lines, you will be fined. If your car remains even one second past the time you agreed to, you will also be fined. Any piece of trash that lands in your space during your parking time will also be cause for additional penalties.

To some, this is a highly needed "take-ownership-of-your-actions" accountability standard to be imposed on everyone around us. To them, the world will be far better place if people are held to a higher standard.

To others, the risk of penalty far outweighs their value to society. They will choose to avoid activities that require them to park in spaces with that kind of liability.

Compare that type of parking space to one where you can come and go as you please and you are seamlessly charged for time spent parking. One is a services-rendered model, the other a compliance-driven with penalty model.

In a society where both models are allowed to exist, transparency becomes the arch enemy of anything with penalties. Since people are an inexact species driven by emotions and spur-of-the-moment decisions, any attempt to over-regulate the humanness of our actions will be met with extreme resistance.

As we move further down the transparency spectrum, it's not difficult to imagine surveillance systems that monitor us constantly.

• Computer systems that monitor the flow of information we are consuming and every transaction we make.
• Traffic drones that monitor our cars, with the ability to log every speeding violation, both going too fast and going too slow, illegal turns, lane changes, emission checks, noise violations, and even prolonged hesitation at stoplights.
• Surveillance drones that examine our individual actions, citing us for missing a trashcan when we throw something away, use foul language in public, or even disciplining our kids incorrectly.

Again, every breakthrough in transparency-related technology creates its own economies. If allowed, each level of personal intrusion will be accompanied higher and higher thresholds for compliance.... until we reach a breaking point.

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Radical Transparency

While a few inspired individuals have pushed the notion of radical transparency, living in a world where we are all equally exposed to the nth degree, this is simply not an achievable objective.

Yes, I will agree that in most cases, people who live in glass houses will not throw stones at others who live in glass houses. However, in an imperfect world, transparency cannot be distributed equally, and those with less transparency will always have a significant advantage over those with more.

In a peace-loving community that exists without any guns, the person who arrives with a gun, and is willing to use it, has a significant advantage over everyone else. Similarly, in a business environment where everyone follows the rules, the person who is willing to ignore the rules has a significant advantage over everyone else. At some point, when the designated elite can hide behind the veil of privacy and others cannot, transparency becomes a lethal weapon.

Rule-Breakers are Our Heroes

"Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor."

                                                          - Truman Capote

Browsing through some recent college course catalogs it occurred to me that for all of the colorful characters in the history books, no one is currently teaching classes on the fine art of rule-breaking.vVirtually everyone who makes it into the history books is a rule-breaker. Yet for all the accolades we heap upon past rebels who zigged left when everyone else zagged right, those luminaries responsible for much of the world we live in today, we have not bothered to turn rule-breaking into an noble profession.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, someone needs to create the official rules for becoming a rule-breaker. We can learn much from the inspired paths of these past contrarians.

Our Need for Rules

Before plotting a strategy for breaking rules, we first need to understand the reasons behind the rules, and the risks that come with breaking them.
Rules create order. They create the inter-relational fabric of society around which all of our actions are woven.

When rules are too harsh, and crudely enforced, they cause people to live in constant fear, forcing a regression of arts and sciences. When rules are too lenient and loosely imposed, they provide an equally poor structure for the advancement of culture and knowledge.

Corporations are formed around rule structures that guide people through their working days. Like many other aspects of life, company rules can either be a net-positive or a net-negative. Too often businesses create layers of rules that keep bright people from doing new things.

To executives, power is about what they control. For the workers, power is freedom, and freedom is about what they can unleash.
Rules create stability, but rule-breakers are constantly looking for the next revolution they can unleash.
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Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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